Pro-Russia party may take power in Latvia if it can form coalition

A pro-Russia party has taken the most votes in a snap parliamentary election in Latvia for the first time since the Baltic nation won independence from the Soviet Union 20 years ago.

Harmony Centre, comprising mainly members of Latvia’s ethnic Russian minority, took over 28% in the weekend vote. The party maintains close ties with United Russia, Russia’s ruling party.

But Harmony was struggling to agree on a coalition with other parties in the country, where suspicion of Russia still runs deep. If it does form a coalition, it would be the first pro-Russia party with a leading voice in an EU and Nato country.

The snap election was called this summer after the then president, Valdis Zatlers, dissolved parliament when MPs refused to help launch an investigation into alleged corruption by a leading Latvian businessman and MP.

Analysts said low voter turnout contributed to Harmony’s success. The political crisis came as Latvia was struggling to recover from the global financial crisis, which upended the country’s economy and forced it to appeal for an IMF bailout.

Harmony leader Nils Usakovs, who is also mayor of the capital, Riga, is holding talks with members of two centre-right parties that took second and third place in the vote. Negotiations are expected to continue throughout the week.

Harmony has pushed for greater rights for the many Russians who remained in Latvia after the Soviet collapse, many of whom have faced obstacles to gaining citizenship as the country faces difficulty dealing with its bitter past.

The party tempered its targeting of historical issues in the lead-up to the vote, with Usakovs reportedly saying last week that he was “not allergic” to the term “occupation” when discussing the country’s Soviet history.

“History is very painful in our society,” Janis Urbanovics, the head of Harmony Centre’s faction in parliament, said by telephone from Riga. “We have proposed to deal with our difficult socioeconomic situation first.

“We’re not saying that we can’t talk about history. But we say our opponents aren’t able to talk about it calmly, so: if you’re not ready, let’s talk about history later.”

He said he hoped Harmony’s success would lead to “positive changes” in Latvia’s relations with Russia. “More contact between our parties can improve trust,” he said.

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